Yesterday was the third consecutive day of WNBA triple-headers, but it was a slightly more intriguing slate than the previous offerings. We had a rematch from Friday night, with two Eastern playoff contenders still trying to prove themselves in different ways. Tulsa were hoping to indicate that their recent upturn in form was more than just a fluke, facing an Atlanta team trying to arrest a recent slide. And finally, two of the three Western powers faced off, with a win streak and a new defense in the mix. This was a nice way to finish off the weekend.
- Here we had our two potential Eastern playoff teams. With Connecticut looking terrible and New York floundering, most bets would probably be on both these teams making the postseason, but it’s far from a certainty at this stage. Washington lost narrowly to this Fever team on Friday, but the Mystics have been a significantly better team on their own floor this season. Indiana came into this game having won five of their previous six, and are in the process of turning around their season.
- Washington were as healthy as ever, but slightly worryingly Indiana guard Erin Phillips sat this one out. She missed the Fever’s first 11 games of the season with a meniscus tear in her knee, but had returned to play in their last three. Apparently she was kept out of this one as a precautionary measure due to some recent knee pain. Hopefully she just needed a little rest, because her return has been an important boost for Indiana.
- If we wanted to be nice and generous about the opening stages of this game, we could call it a defensive battle. More accurately we could say that neither team could make a shot to save their lives. Everyone missed every kind of shot you could imagine, and Washington led 9-8 after the opening quarter. One shot was made in the opening 21 attempts of the game.
- Washington got some solid interior defense from backup post Emma Meesseman after Crystal Langhorne picked up early fouls and had to sit. That was nice to see, because the main area that was concerning about Meesseman coming to the WNBA was whether she could handle the physicality of this league. She always looked a little lightweight to me in Europe. Indiana are one of the smaller interior teams in the league, but they’re as physical as anyone. She stood up to the fight.
- Indiana started to pull away in the second quarter by virtue of actually hitting some shots. Not many, but Tamika Catchings and Karima Christmas made enough to make an impact, considering Washington still couldn’t score. Lin Dunn and her staff have done a nice job of re-shaping Indiana’s defense to keep it as effective as ever under the new defensive three-seconds rule. They had some problems earlier in the year, caused as much by all the injuries as anything else, but they’re back up to their previous heights now. The low-post double-teams that they used to bring with a weak-side defender along the baseline have essentially disappeared – because that second defender used to loiter in the paint so she could arrive quickly, and the new rule makes that tough to get away with. Their double-teams are now coming from the more traditional high defender on the strong side, but the activity, recovery and teamwork of their defense continues to make it very successful. Washington’s Crystal Langhorne had absolutely no impact on this game due to the double-teams and defensive pressure.
- Indiana led 30-16 at halftime, and Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said his team had “set basketball back about 20 years” in his halftime interview. Another line was “16 points – that’s a joke” and he wasn’t far wrong.
- Monique Currie offered Washington some hope early in the second half by actually hitting a pair of jumpers, and two quick fouls on Fever point guard Briann January took her to four for the day and sent her to the bench. With Phillips resting, that brought in rookie Layshia Clarendon to handle the point, and it took her all of four minutes to pick up her second, third and fourth fouls of the afternoon. The final two were both against Nadirah McKenith, who was earning minutes ahead of Mystics starting point guard Ivory Latta and cleanly stripped Clarendon at midcourt. The Fever rookie’s had a pretty rough debut season, but that’s partly been down to all the injuries requiring too much of her.
- Despite their foul issues at the point, Indiana were maintaining their lead thanks to Catchings’s jump shot dropping in with far greater regularity than it has for most of this season, and some driving aggression from Shavonte Zellous. It was smart from Zellous, whose jumper hadn’t been falling in the first half, so she went to the rim instead and forced her way to the free throw line.
- However, Washington did manage to make the occasional push, and hung around at least within range of a comeback if they could string enough offense together. January picked up her fifth foul early in the fourth quarter, bringing Clarendon back in and leading to more turnovers. Then Catchings was caught in the face by an inadvertent Kia Vaughn elbow, and had to leave the court with blood pouring from her nose. It was the second player taken out by Vaughn’s flailing arms on the day, with Christmas spending some time on the sidelines earlier after a smack to the face.
- Washington pulled within seven while Catch was being treated, but the offensive attacking of Erlana Larkins kept Indiana afloat. She’s definitely looked to score more lately, and they needed that in this game. Her work on the offensive glass alongside Catchings and Christmas was important as well. Then Catchings came back, had a steal and a drive for a three-point play within moments of returning, and the Fever were back in control. From that point on, they eased home for the win.
- Indiana continue to improve and morph back into a team resembling the champions of a year ago. They still miss the perimeter threat of Katie Douglas, and you could definitely feel the absence of Phillips in this game after having the extra shooter/ballhandler for the previous three, but they’re finding themselves regardless. The offense is still prone to breakdowns because there just aren’t that many threats on the floor, and there certainly aren’t many players who can create their own shot, but the team defense is returning. No one wants to play this team any more, and as long as they just keep getting healthier, their threat is only going to increase.
- Washington had a difficult day. Langhorne didn’t score a single point all afternoon, none of their shooters could find a rhythm, and either the Fever did a good job of defending drives without fouling or the Mystics couldn’t buy a call (depending on your perspective). That strong, young bench we’ve been waxing lyrical about gives Thibault a host of options, and he cycled through virtually all of them but couldn’t find a mix that would work. Some days it goes like that, especially against an increasingly confident Fever squad.
- Tulsa came into this game on a two-game winning ‘streak’, but they’d beaten a Seattle team that seems to hate playing them, and the current mess from Connecticut. This seemed like it would be a more realistic test, against an Atlanta franchise that had led the East for most of the season and still sat at 10-4. However, the Dream were closing out a 13-day, four-game road trip, where Sancho Lyttle had broken her foot in the opener and they’d lost all three so far. They had plenty of problems before facing a rejuvenated Shock.
- Both sides kept the same starting lineups used in recent games, which meant Alex Bentley and Angel Goodrich keeping their respective spots at point guard ahead of Jasmine Thomas and Skylar Diggins. For a game or two, Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg could probably claim he was easing Diggins back into the fold after her ankle injury. If this goes on much longer, he may have angry hordes of Diggins fans badgering him about benching their favourite player. But when they’ve started winning, it’s hard to complain.
- However, the real story for Tulsa continues to be their young frontcourt, not the potentially simmering point guard controversy. The Shock have two of the best young posts in the women’s game, and they’re finally starting to mesh and prove it. Liz Cambage was going up against one of the big, strong veteran centers in the league in Erika de Souza, and Cambage just kept rolling from her strong form in recent games. She had a nice post finish around Erika early on, and then showed some development when she managed to slide to the side of Le’coe Willingham on a drive from the free throw line before finishing. It’s the kind of move where she’s been blindly steamrolling over defenders for offensive fouls in previous games, so that was especially positive. Alongside her, Glory Johnson was involved in plenty of Tulsa’s offense as well, sliding in on pick-and-rolls, knocking down an occasional mid-range jumper, and running the floor for quick opportunities. It’s still hard to see a great deal of chemistry directly between the pair, but the squad as a whole have worked out how to balance them and keep both involved. Most teams would love to have one young post with this kind of talent. Tulsa have two.
- Cambage and Johnson continue to be scary on the offensive glass, as well. Cambage is so ridiculously huge that she just reaches over people and grabs them; Johnson is a live wire who’ll chase, leap and fight for anything. Between them they’re a menace.
- ‘Mad Liz and Glory’ really ought to catch on as a nickname for the pair, by the way (like the terrible movie, Mad Dog and Glory). Well I like it, anyway.
- Between the effectiveness of their young frontcourt and Atlanta either getting swamped in traffic on drives or bricking jumpers, Tulsa pushed out into a lead in the first half. Cambage is still a work in progress on defense, and occasionally loses concentration, but when you’re that big and reasonably coordinated you cause problems one way or another. Tulsa led 44-35 at halftime.
- Angel McCoughtry was dominating her fair share of Atlanta possessions as you’d expect, and they need her to do that on occasion, but this team needs to remember how they moved the ball earlier in the year. The loss of Lyttle hurts because Willingham just doesn’t move like her, or offer the same scoring threat. The switch of Bentley for Thomas as the starting point guard also doesn’t seem to be working out that well. Thomas was fairly comfortable in her starting spot, but has barely made a shot since being shifted to a backup role. Bentley was providing their bench energy and scoring which is now gone (and with Tiffany Hayes injured they have even less coming off the pine). We’ll see whether Fred Williams will concede that it hasn’t worked and switch back. It seemed like an unnecessary change to a team that was already shifting to handle losing Lyttle again.
- As if the game wasn’t already going badly enough for Atlanta, it fell apart entirely in the third quarter. A lot of calls went against them in the early moments – overly physical defending or unfortunate refereeing depended on your perspective, as always – and they were in the penalty after less than three minutes of the period. So Tulsa paraded to the free throw line time and time again, and Atlanta’s frustration mounted as whistles kept blowing and they couldn’t hit enough shots at the other end to respond. Eventually Fred Williams had enough – both of the calls and his own team’s lazy, tired defense. He picked up two technicals in quick succession, resulting in an ejection, and made the long, slow walk back to the locker rooms. Glory Johnson made all four free throws – two for the foul he was complaining about, two for the techs – to put Tulsa up by 19 late in the third quarter. The lead only got bigger in the fourth, and the game was over as a contest.
- We still haven’t seen the Shock close out a tight game in the final seconds, but finally that’s for a good reason – now they’re winning games by too many points to need to close them out. Johnson finished 9-14 for 24 points and 10 boards, while Cambage was 8-10 for 23 points and 15 rebounds to carry the team as a pair. Cambage even made a couple of really nice plays late in the game that showed further development – a simple pass out of a double-team to Nicole Powell, which she rotated to Candice Wiggins for an open three; then a pass around the body of a double-teaming defender to Johnson for a layup inside. In previous games, Cambage would have tried to make a big sweeping pass to Wiggins herself on the first one, and probably just lost the ball under pressure on the second. She’s playing hard for the whole game, but she’s also playing smarter. The development and progression of Mad Liz and Glory are a beautiful sight to see for Shock fans.
- Tulsa’s perimeter still has plenty of work to do, but it’s less of an issue when the frontcourt is playing like this. They’re looking inside far more consistently, which means fewer forced, contested threes. The ones they’re taking are usually better looks, after going inside first and then coming back out. I don’t see a great deal of difference in how the offense runs with Diggins or Goodrich (which in itself is a bit of a disappointment from Diggins, considering she went 3rd in the draft while Goodrich was 29th). But they’ve done a good enough job in recent games, and the team as a whole avoided turnovers against the Dream, who thrive off creating them. We’re all starting to believe Tulsa, just a little bit. Keep it up.
- Atlanta will be happy to be heading home, after the long road trip took their record from 10-1 to 10-5. They’ve got trips to Phoenix and Indiana coming up after the All-Star Game, but a home matchup with Connecticut before the break ought to help raise their spirits. They need to re-charge their batteries, and remember how they’ve performed already this season. We know they can play without Lyttle, and we know they don’t have to jack up 17 three-point attempts to try to stay in games (they missed all 17 in this one). A return to focussing on ball movement, defense, and a little more balance and they can get right back into their flow.
- Bad news for Phoenix before the game. Not only was rookie center Brittney Griner still out with her sprained knee, now veteran forward Penny Taylor was back on the sidelines next to her due to swelling in her other knee (the one that wasn’t operated on last year after the ACL tear). It’s not uncommon for things like that to crop up when players return from long-term injuries and the rest of the body is suddenly put back under stress, but it’s not good either. They were hoping to use the rest of the season to fully integrate Taylor (and Griner) back into the team. It’ll be difficult to do that if injuries keep pushing players in and out of the lineup. Charde Houston moved back into the starting unit, after Taylor’s sole start of the season had helped break their losing streak on Thursday night against LA.
- The Mercury did at least have an extra option available for this game, after picking up guard Jasmine James to fill the spot opened up by waiving Samantha Prahalis. James went 30th in this year’s draft to Seattle, and didn’t make it through the Storm’s camp.
- Minnesota had already beaten Phoenix three times this season, twice in overwhelming blowouts and once with a dominant fourth quarter surge. The intrigue with this game was how much of a difference would be made by the ‘X’ zone that Phoenix debuted on Thursday night against the Sparks. As with the game against LA, it took a few minutes for the Mercury to break it out because they like to drop into the zone off made baskets – and they couldn’t score. When a Briana Gilbreath layup got them off the mark, it finally came into play. Minnesota obviously knew it was coming, and they had a few immediate approaches to attack it. A hand off from Lindsay Whalen to Maya Moore at the extended elbow gave Moore an open look for three. They tried to post up Rebekkah Brunson down low to draw one of the back defenders and one of the wings in the Mercury’s 3-2 zone to unbalance it. They tried swinging the ball around to shift the zone out of shape. But when the Lynx didn’t have much immediate success, they fell into the same trap as LA – repeatedly settling for jumpers. When you’ve got Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus on the wing, with Whalen and Brunson as options as well, jumpers can often be pretty damn effective. But you don’t want them to be your entire offense (except on those days when Augustus/Moore are just ridiculously hot and take the game over. Then it’s okay). It took Minnesota out of their rhythm offensively, and Phoenix began to take control of the game.
- The Mercury look more comfortable in the zone than the man-to-man they’ve been desperately struggling with all season. It’s another example of head coach Corey Gaines realising that what they used to do in the past worked better than what he’s brought in, so they’ve improved by going back to the old ideas. The X is very similar to their old ‘Rover’ zone, just with the player in the middle shifted forward a couple of steps to avoid too many issues with the defensive three-seconds rule. That may even be an improvement, because now they just wheel around against ball movement, rather than the defender at the top trying to shift backwards and forwards to cover or double-team. There’s less thinking, and fewer potential mistakes to be made in the zone – and even Gaines must’ve realised by now that his team is better off keeping defense as simple as humanly possible.
- At the other end of the floor, Phoenix found better penetration against the Lynx than they had in most of the previous encounters this season, with Taurasi getting into the heart of the defense and either creating contact or dumping off to others for easy finishes. Whalen started the game defending Taurasi – which was a switch, as Augustus has generally been the choice to begin games – with Monica Wright taking over whenever she was in the game. But the defender didn’t make much difference. She wasn’t shooting particularly well from outside, but Taurasi led an offense that had more speed and confidence in the first half than Minnesota’s, resulting in a 44-36 halftime lead for Phoenix.
- Also during that first half, there was a potentially important moment featuring Taurasi that had nothing to do with her scoring or passing. After being fouled on a spin move by Devereaux Peters, Taurasi flailed her arm out (as she tends to do on virtually every drive) and caught Peters in the face. Because the play was dead after the whistle for the foul on Peters, it couldn’t be a flagrant foul and was instead whistled as a technical against Taurasi. It’s not a call I like unless the contact seems intentional, but it is a call you sometimes see when contact is made to the head. In fact, we’d seen it barely two hours earlier when Kia Vaughn did exactly the same thing for Washington. It only becomes an important issue because it’s the seventh technical called against Taurasi this season, and seven is the magic number. Assuming none of them have been rescinded (Phoenix will probably appeal this one, whatever the situation is with the previous six), she will be suspended for the Mercury’s visit to Minnesota on Wednesday afternoon. For future reference, the 9th, 11th, 13th etc. technicals also result in one-game suspensions.
- Minnesota came out of the locker room with some new ideas to attack the zone. On the first possession, Janel McCarville went into the paint initially, then stepped up to the elbow to receive a pass, before finding an open Moore cutting backdoor to the basket. That’s one way to trouble a zone – set up in one area, then slide to another to confuse the defense about when they should pass the player off to the next defender.
- However, the easiest way to beat the zone began to work at the other end of the floor – create turnovers, push the ball, and score before the defense can get involved. Minnesota’s defense is always a big part of their offense, and that finally started to play a part in the game in the second half.
- Seimone Augustus knocking down a series of jumpers later in the third quarter helped, as well. Sometimes you can ‘settle’ and still do pretty nicely.
- Phoenix still managed to cling on to their lead throughout the third quarter. Taurasi was doing her usual trick of creating contact and drawing endless fouls, which kept the points ticking over, and DeWanna Bonner made a few shots (which has been something of a rarity this season). When Minnesota pulled within a point and should’ve taken the lead on a breakaway, Wright made a mess of a pass to Moore for a turnover, and Phoenix managed to push the gap back out.
- Minnesota still weren’t dealing particularly effectively with the Mercury zone, but their own defense was keeping them in it. Static, ugly possessions for Phoenix bogged down their offense in the fourth quarter, and with four minutes remaining a Brunson layup gave Minnesota their first lead since the opening moments of the second quarter. Taurasi hit a three to take the lead right back – a rare hit from outside for her in this game, after a host of misses from deep all afternoon.
- We were set for a grandstand finish. After a Whalen jumper put Minnesota up by four, a Bonner triple and Taurasi driving finish took the lead back for Phoenix with 93 seconds left in regulation. Between those two Mercury baskets, Moore – who’d had a horrible game – turned an open three into a much more difficult look by dribbling into a sidestep, then bricked it, before playing matador defense to guide Taurasi to the rim.
- However, Maya Moore knows how to keep her head in the game these days. Two Mercury defenders were drawn to Augustus, leaving Moore wide open in the corner – the exact same spot where she’d messed around and ultimately missed a moment earlier. Without hesitation, she drained the shot to put the Lynx back in front. Phoenix almost turned the ball over when a Taurasi pass to Candice Dupree was tipped out of bounds by Brunson – then did turn it over on the ensuing inbounds play, with Moore turning Taurasi’s pass into a layup the other way. That gave Minnesota a four-point lead with 34 seconds left.
- From there it was a free throw contest. Taurasi drove and drew a foul, then hit one-of-two. Moore was fouled, and sank a pair. Wright stupidly fouled Bonner on a three-point heave, and she hit two-of-three to give Phoenix a prayer, but that was it. McCarville went one-of-two, Bonner missed from deep, and the Lynx were home.
- Despite the disappointing finish, Phoenix have some positives to take from this game. Without Griner and Taylor, they made a much better fist of defending Minnesota and giving the Lynx problems. Even without Taurasi shooting well – 8-24 overall, 3-14 from three-point range – they were in the game until the final seconds. The effectiveness of the X may drop off as teams amass more tape of it and work on ways to exploit it – or just have better shooting nights – but for now the Mercury have found a way to defend that isn’t pathetically embarrassing. Against lesser teams than the Lynx, combining that with the typical Mercury offense should be enough to start winning again.
- Minnesota gutted this one out. Whalen, Augustus and Brunson all had their moments, and Moore stepped up in the final minute, but Cheryl Reeve would admit that they struggled against Phoenix’s zone for much of the game. Bizarrely, they play their fifth and final game of the regular season against the Mercury on Wednesday, before the All-Star break. Whether Taurasi is available or not, Reeve will want to see her team do a better job of getting through the Mercury zone to the rim, rather than constantly firing jumpers over it or from mid-range between the two lines of defenders. It might be the last time they see Phoenix during the grind of the regular season – but there’s still every chance that these teams could clash in the playoffs.
Every team in the WNBA has now filled its roster back up. Seattle re-signed center Nakia Sanford; Phoenix added Jasmine Jones as already mentioned; and New York added former Mercury misfit Samantha Prahalis. They’re all seven-day deals, so hardly a long commitment, but the Prahalis signing is the one which will draw by far the most interest. On the face of it, she doesn’t seem like a great fit with the Liberty. Bill Laimbeer has been complaining about having to play small backcourts all season, but she’s not much taller than Leilani Mitchell. They’re also pretty thin in the frontcourt after waiving Avery Warley, leaving them with essentially three post players (and Plenette Pierson isn’t fully fit). But it’s a move from Laimbeer to search for value. Prahalis was a mid-first round draft pick, a member of the All-Rookie team just a year ago, and her decline in Phoenix seemed to have as much to do with attitude and character as actual performance. He’ll back himself to deal with any character problems. Despite issues around her defense at WNBA level, and whether she can shoot consistently, Prahalis still has some talent. Now she has another chance to see if she can earn some time on the court.
Tamika Catchings and Liz Cambage were awarded Player of the Week honours in their respective conferences. Both well-deserved, and it’s nice to see Cambage playing to the level that brings her into these conversations. Long may it continue.
The All-Star reserves, voted for by the league’s coaches, will be announced during the ESPN2 game tomorrow night. There should be a feature going up here before then about who ought to be on the squads, so check back tomorrow for that.
Tuesday July 23rd (tomorrow):
New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET. Fever -7.5 is the line. New York looked better in their loss to Chicago on Saturday, but it’s hard to see them covering against a resurgent Indiana squad. I’ll take the Fever.